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BOOK REVIEW

Louise Kennedy, in ‘The End of the World Is a Cul de Sac,’ populates her stories with wit, grit, and heartbreak

The acclaimed Irish author’s debut story collection explores the roles of men and women in their complicated, troubled lives

Louise Kennedy, author of the short story collection “The End of the World Is a Cul de Sac.”Bloomsbury/Louise Kennedy

There’s something quite appealing about reading a short story collection with the biting title “The End of the World Is a Cul de Sac.” That, along with the fact that Louise Kennedy wrote these 15 stories in her backyard shed during the pandemic after working for 30 years largely as a chef. Kennedy grew up outside Belfast and didn’t begin writing until 2014 when she was 47 years old. She presently lives in Sligo, Ireland.

About swaggering men and slyly subversive, hardworking women, these gritty stories are marked by dark wit and avid artistry. Nothing is sugarcoated in this collection, set in an Ireland in which the compromised present sits adjacent to, and often on top of, an ancient past.

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In the title story, a woman is hiding out in her stripped home next to a housing development of cheaply built, semi-detached, and detached houses surrounding a cul-de-sac: “The dereliction was almost beautiful, the houses dark against the mauve dawn, pools of buff-colored water glinting briefly as a passing car took the last bend before town.”

Abandoned by a husband escaping bad debts, deflated dreams, and guilt at his failed housing experiment, Sarah is trying to evict a donkey (shades of “The Banshees of Inisherin”) that has just defecated on the walls of the show house. The housing development’s granite sign, Hawthorn Close, sits atop a “fairy fort,” the name given to the remains of circular structures from prehistoric Ireland.

The incongruity of the burro in the show house is echoed in the story “Hunter-Gatherers.” Siobhán has become entranced by a hare nudging around the garden she’s planted by the gate lodge she and her boyfriend Sid are renting on the grounds of a country estate. Siobhán is the gatherer. Her brusque boyfriend Sid is the hunter, working as a “beater” — one who flushes out birds for more privileged hunters — along with his friend who’s the gamekeeper for the wealthy family.

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Sid’s aim is to aggressively live off the grid, reading books like “Food for Free”: “Sid had bought books online about self-sufficiency and foraging. For the month of February they would eat only wild food.”

Home from a hunt, Sid and his mate Peadar have the daughter of Peadar’s girlfriend in tow. Siobhán retreats to the bedroom, hears a gunshot and a scream. Fearing the girl has been accidentally shot, Siobhán emerges to find that the girl herself has snagged the lovely hare, now on the kitchen draining board. Folklore has it that hares scream like a woman when hurt. At story’s end, the emotionally wounded Siobhán expresses her contempt to Sid, but seems resigned to her fate, cleaning up the messes left by her posturing lover.

Sometimes the husband’s swagger is seasoned with regret, as in the poignant and funny “Beyond Carthage,” in which the central character Therese is off on a disastrous revenge junket in Tunisia with a friend after discovering her husband’s post on a dating site.

And sometimes the spouse’s bluster is tinged with a dawning awareness, as in the heartbreaking “Brittle Things.” A mother of an autistic child is forced by her husband’s staunch denial to research in secret her almost 5-year-old son’s developmental difficulties. At the library computer, she types in symptoms, her search terms quickly autocompleted with troubling diagnoses.

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Though he displays public bravado about their son, at home the father is attentive and vulnerable. Observing his son lining up his cars over and over in the same order, the father “watch[es] him with such tenderness,” the mother “ha[s] to turn away.” By story’s end, after the son’s public meltdown at a pub, the father begins to acknowledge the painful truth.

The final story, “Garland Sunday,” is layered with what’s unsaid between a husband and a wife. Orla’s abortion has soured her husband toward her. She attempts to woo her distant mate with the traditional offering of a garland and a heart-shaped cake at a public festival. The personal secret disclosed that day to Orla by her father-in-law, about a cake once offered to him as a boy, reveals complicated truths about unwanted pregnancies.

Eudora Welty once called trouble “the backbone of literature.” The story in this volume about The Troubles in Northern Ireland, “In Silhouette,” is told at arm’s length, in second person, as the central character tries to distance herself from the brutal facts of her dead brother’s history.

Although Kennedy came to writing late, she has garnered much acclaim. Her debut novel of 2022, “Trespasses,” about an affair between a schoolteacher and a barrister over twice her age, was shortlisted this year for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, formerly the Orange Prize, and was named a 2022 Barnes & Noble Discover Prize finalist.

The world might well end in a cul-de-sac, but endings in this collection yield the beginnings of insight, awareness, and spiky, wry humor. Layering past with present, and defeat with determination, “The End of the World Is a Cul de Sac” abounds with details of the flora, fauna, and folklore of Ireland — and is rich, too, in its exploration of men and women, their roles and cohabitation of complicated, troubled lives. Out of all this, the gimlet-eyed Kennedy gives us, to echo Welty, literature with backbone.

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THE END OF THE WORLD IS A CUL DE SAC

By Louise Kennedy

Riverhead, 289 pp., $27

Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer and book critic.